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Review: Sleeping Dogs

If you had told me last gen that Square-Enix would be the publisher of some of the best Western-developed games of this generation, I would have laughed.  But here we are with yet another Square-Enix published title that’s better than most of what they’ve been developing themselves recently.  Sleeping Dogs takes the crime sandbox template and applies heavy doses of what the genre needs – mainly, excellent control mechanics for fighting, shooting and driving.  You know, the things you actually spend your time doing in a sandbox game.  Add in a fresh Hong Kong setting and you have the makings for the sleeper hit of the year.  *insert groans here*

Wei Shen

Wei Shen – part cop, part gangster, all awesome

In Sleeping Dogs you play as Wei Shen, a native of Hong Kong who has been living in the U.S. for the past several years.  He has returned home to go undercover and help take down the Sun On Yee, a notorious Triad gang.  I don’t want to go any further into the story than that, because honestly the story is one of the biggest draws of the game.  It has all of the twists and turns you would expect from a movie, complete with murder, betrayal and a dash of love.  The main characters are fleshed out very well, and you really feel invested in them by the end of the game.

The game is structured just how you would assume – story missions appear on the map along with side missions, and you can drive to those locations or just drive around hunting for collectibles and doing side activities.  The story missions are all a lot of fun and usually contain a ton of variety – on any given mission you may very well do some fighting, some free-run chasing and some driving.  With generous checkpoints, nothing in these missions ever feels like a chore.

Sleeping Dogs combat

Wei likes to mix in the occasional cleaver

The individual elements are all very well done.  Fighting can best be compared to Batman: Arkham City.  While not quite at that level of polish, there is still far more depth than this genre has seen before.  Most combos are performed with just one button, although you also have a counter button and a grab button.  When an enemy flashes red, tap the counter button and Wei will stop what he’s doing and block the incoming hit, dishing out some damage of his own in return.  Grab an opponent for a simple throw or use one of the environmental hazards that flash red when you grab someone to finish him off quickly (and painfully!).  Combat is very satisfying and quickly becomes the star of the show.  In fact, you go through the first 20-25% of the game before you ever encounter your first gun.  And even then, guns are always secondary to actual fighting.  Shooting and driving may not be quite on the level of an actual 3rd person shooter or a racing game, but they are close enough to work.  I never had any significant issues with either.

In addition to these elements, the game also integrates free running similar to that found in Assassin’s Creed.  This makes chase scenes much more fluid and frankly, fun.  But these moves are also integrated into combat – for example, jump and slide over a box into an enemy and you will instantly take him down, disarming him in the process if he was armed.  It’s this borrowing of elements from other games and bringing them together into something new that really makes Sleeping Dogs stand out.

Car hijacking

Borrow cars on the go!

The game also has a detailed upgrade path.  You earn experience in at least one of three categories for everything you do – Police, Triad and Face.  Leveling up in either Police or Triad awards you with a skill point that you can spend in their skill trees.  Leveling up in Face – which is earned by doing favors for people – grants you general perks.  The collectibles in the game also give you rewards.  Returning the jade statues to the head of the local dojo grants you new fighting moves.  Praying at the health shrines grants you permanent health increases.  The lock boxes scattered all over town contain money and sometimes either weapons or clothing.  Completing side activities such as drug busts gains you money as well as Face and Police experience.  And going on dates with the girls you meet during the course of the game awards you buy putting the various collectibles on your map to make them easier to locate.

Not everything is pork buns and green tea, however.  The game’s sordid past – including being an Activision-published sequel to the True Crime series for a while before being dropped by them – shows in the rough edges of the game.  The camera can be problematic at times, and I had a few times where it would get stuck too low to the ground while driving and I would have to get out of the car for it to reset.  There are sound glitches, the most annoying to me being the radio stations.  Songs will restart when you get in & out of a car quickly instead of having them continue to play in the background & picking up where they should have been.  Dialog bubbles will also fail to pop up over the vendors from time to time.  In terms of gameplay, some of the side characters aren’t given the same treatment as the main cast – especially the girls you date.  Their events feel tacked on just to have another bullet point on the box, and when the game does try to make them feel more important it comes off feeling forced and out of character for Wei.

Hong Kong at night

Hong Kong at night is beautiful

The world is very detailed, but also rather small compared to other games of its type.  Character models look rather rough, and animation in cut scenes can be very choppy and rigid.  In-combat and while free running, however, animation looks very fluid and natural.  On the version I played for the PS3, the framerate took a very noticeable hit when driving, especially at high speeds.  Overall, while it’s not a bad looking game on the whole it’s obvious the developer had a rather low budget to work with.

None of these issues hurt the pure fun you have from running around Hong Kong causing mischief.  What this game does right – the story and fighting being at the top of that list – are done so well that the problems are really more nit-picks than anything else.  If your’e a completionist, you can expect a ton to do and about 30 hours of gametime to get it all done.  If you’re a fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to check this game out.  A word of caution, however – you may quickly find yourself craving Hong Kong street food.

I played the PS3 version of Sleeping Dogs for this review. It is also available for the 360 and PC. I have played for about 26 hours at the time of writing this review, and still have 1 story mission to go and a few side activities to complete before I’ll be done.  

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